Making sound the first priority in a podcast might not seem like an original idea, but for projects like its seven-part “Heavy Medals” series, the team behind ESPN’s 30 For 30 podcasts truly lets the score guide the story. Producers engage composers early in the development stage to create the identity of each series, and that influences everything that follows, from the storytelling to the sound design’s dynamics and flow.
“Once the composer has written a cue that’s going to be the theme, it becomes everyone’s North Star,” says Julia Lowrie Henderson, senior editorial producer of 30 For 30 podcasts. “It helps everyone figure out or keep pushing the direction, the story, the style, the writing, [and] how you’re thinking about tops and bottoms of episodes.”
On the “Heavy Medals” series, which profiles controversial U.S. Olympics coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi and their influence on gymnastics, engineer and sound designer Mitra Kaboli worked with composer Ian Coss to create a subtle score that complements the archival audio, narration and interviews. One of the podcast’s signature moments comes in episode 4 at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, when gymnast Kerri Strug landed on an injured ankle to win the Gold medal.
“That was probably one of the hardest scenes,” Henderson says. “The sound design of it is something that Mitra and I worked on for a really long time, because you never want to feel like you leave the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, but if you’re in a place that’s very loud for 15 minutes, you just get exhausted. I’m the most impressed by Mitra’s work for making us feel like we’re someplace, but not doing it with just a straight sonic bed of crowd noise that wears us down.”
Having a firm grasp of dynamics and the instinct to use them are key to mastering complex soundscapes like the world of “Heavy Medals.”
“I think a big part of sound design and scoring is actually finding the moments of simplicity, where you can pull back, so that every time you do use something, it’s effective,” she says. “So much of the artistry comes from finding moments where you can bring silence back into the picture.”
Although the “Heavy Medals” series debuted in July, nearly all the audio was captured by February, before people began quarantining at home due to COVID-19. Nonetheless, a handful of interviews, including gymnast Simone Biles, were done when some states were opening back up. A masked and gloved field producer brought an Audio-Technica AT8010 microphone and a Zoom H5 recorder to Houston to record Biles, and set up a video conference so producers could see and interview her remotely.
With the elements falling into place, in May, narrator Alyssa Roenigk set up a vocal booth under a stairwell with a Shure SM7B while Henderson and the team produced over video conference. It’s not a foolproof system, though. The low fidelity of video conferencing obscured some moments they had to fix later.
“She was recording at a good level, but there’s just a lot of subtlety in terms of someone’s voice and their delivery,” Henderson says. “There were times when we ended up doing pickups because it was impossible to tell over Zoom that she was pushing. Then when you heard it, you were just like, ‘Oh, she’s pushing so hard. She needs to try this again.’”
When ESPN decided to launch its popular 30 For 30 film documentary series into the podcast format, Henderson and the other producers established close working relationships with the film team and spent a lot of time envisioning the podcast they wanted to create. The guiding principle is that some stories work well for film, while others work better as a podcast. The storytelling challenges are completely different, but the goal is the same.
“We try really hard to be as lean and clean as possible in the approach to our storytelling,” says Henderson. “Knowing that they’re big stories, knowing we’re covering a lot of ground, and knowing that the more we can get out of the way of it, the more all those audio elements that we have—the scoring, the sound design, the archival footage, the tape—are going to shine.”
ESPN 30 for 30 Podcasts • www.30for30podcasts.com